Media freedom, or regulation?

Paul Macdonnell
6 December 2001

It is in relation to media policy that the left shows its true anti-democratic credentials. Its use of the term 'democracy' in relation to its views of media regulation is entirely Orwellian. It precisely doesn't want freedom of speech.

Take the case of Ireland. It is worth asking why the Broadcasting Commission of Ireland (the Irish state-run broadcasting regulator) is necessary at all. The Commission says it's concerned about 'plurality', 'diversity' and the 'public interest'. In essence it is in the business of good old fashioned state-censorship.

Creating and sustaining the 'public service broadcasting' concept, which is the Commission's business, has involved no small measure of coercion and infringement of freedom of speech. All over Europe 'Public service' broadcasting has handed control of who shall say what to whom, when and where, to state organisations like the BCI. The BCI's core philosophy is that private commercial interest restricts freedom of speech, or the 'right to be heard', of minorities. However this notion can be used to justify state control of anything and everything. If the 'public service' argument is right then the state has a moral imperative to nationalise or regulate all media. After all we can't have too much of a good thing.

Bodies like the BCI, though created within a democracy, are given draconian and arbitrary power and are, in effect, anti-democratic. The BCI directly and successfully attacks the rights of citizens to make their own arrangements, to speak and be heard as they wish, via the airwaves.

'Public service broadcasting' was born in an era that believed in state control of all 'vital' industries and social functions. When governments believed that the masses had no business deciding for themselves what they wished to see or hear. The BCI is the same dreary coercion with the toilet freshener of 'pluralism' and 'diversity' adding a sweet scent to fool our inexperienced noses.

Public Service Broadcasting is a euphemism like 'in the public interest' or 'in the national interest' which is employed by politicians who wish to use the regulators as a proxy to ensure that freedom of speech presents no threat to them.

The only reason the state got involved in broadcasting in Ireland, as in the rest of Europe, was because it harbours a pre-democratic idea about the need to 'control information' that might get into the hands of people who don't know how to handle it. It's been going on since before Henry VIII.

Many people's willingness to believe that censorship is necessary (always for someone else) makes them unwitting supporters of this policy. Why does the state have to regulate broadcasting at all? The libel laws can, as they do now, take care of certain potential abuses. The argument that laissez-faire on the airwaves would mean Satanist broadcasting stations is implausible. Contrary to what many in the regulation community might think, Satanism doesn't encourage advertisers. And that more than any regulator is what keeps radio stations in line. Commercial stations would serve their customers.

This is ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom of speech’; by dressing up discredited collectivist ideas as the first, the BCI attacks the second. You don't get pirate radio stations worrying about 'diversity' and 'pluralism'. That's why some of them are so good.

This article is an extract from the Open Republic Institute’s ezine, Policy Watch.

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